Insider secrets for finding a better parking spot

Need a place to park? So does everyone else.

Finding a spot is a problem that’s as old as the automobile. And for almost that long, the solution has remained frustratingly constant: Get there early, look carefully, and hope for the best. As the busy driving season rolls around, chances are you’ll be hearing that recycled advice more than a few times.

Except now. Just when you thought there wasn’t anything new to say about this old dilemma, it turns out there is. If you’re renting a car or own a smartphone, you may have options.

For example, did you know that some car rental companies will allow you to park at another location? That’s what happened when Harry Thompson rented a car in Houston recently.

“Hertz allowed me to park their car at their Houston location at no charge to me,” he says. “With many travel services having a price tag, this complimentary service saved me the cost of public parking and was most welcome.”

Turns out Hertz offers reciprocal parking to all of its customers, a little-known fact. “It can be done at any of our locations,” says Hertz spokeswoman Beth Davis. “It’s something we gladly provide as part of our dedication to customer service.”

Technology can also help. Consider what happened when Homayoun Gizabi, an information systems consultant from Washington, was looking for a better way to park in DC. Some garages charge $300 for a monthly parking pass, which left him doing what a lot of visitors to the nation’s capital do — looking for “early bird” specials and often being turned away because the garages filled up.

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Gizabi heard about an app called Parking Panda through a friend at work, which promised a shortcut and a price cut. The app could find an available space, allow him to reserve it, and pay for it without having to fumble for coins or a credit card. Plus, the colleague claimed he spent just $16 a day on parking in DC, while Gizabi shelled out $25.

“It worked,” he says.

Parking Panda is available in major American cities where space is tight, like San Francisco, Dallas and New York. But what about other spots? Perhaps the most comprehensive technological solution is Parkopedia, an open database of available parking spots that covers more than 6,000 communities in 52 countries.

I consulted Parkopedia in my hometown, Orlando, and found an extensive listing of available parking spots close to downtown, with price, available spots, terms and contact information. The database even lists “free” spots that are farther away, which is helpful if you don’t mind getting a little exercise before you start sightseeing.

How about a more difficult parking scenario, like a special event? There’s something for that, too. ParkWhiz works a lot like Parking Panda, but it also specializes in events where finding a spot is either difficult or overpriced (and sometimes, both). It has partnerships with event ticket resellers such as StubHub and TicketsNow, as well as professional sports teams like the Indianapolis Colts.

Earlier this year, for instance, the company teamed up with an event company called ShowClix to sell tickets and parking together, as a package. Just think, no more circling the parking lot before the Billy Joel concert. Pretty cool, huh?

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But maybe the best way to find a parking spot is to avoid having to park somewhere in the first place. Try sharing a ride if you need to get somewhere. A standout program is Central Virginia’s clever RideFinders program which offers nifty features like real-time matching for ridesharing through its site and mobile app.

And of course, there’s my favorite solution: mass transit. If you’re headed to a destination where parking is widely considered impossible, don’t mess with it. Park your car, get on the train or bus, and leave the driving to someone else.

Drive or train?

Should you join the thousands of other tourists vying for a finite number of parking spots or not? Here’s how to decide.

Is the price right?
If the price of mass transit is equal to or exceeds the cost of fuel plus parking, you still have to consider the hassle factor. Fighting city traffic takes away from the enjoyment of your vacation. Even if all things are equal, you might still consider hopping on a train.

What’s your schedule?
If you’re an early bird or a night owl, your schedule might not align with ride-sharers or mass transit timetables. Maybe you’re better off driving and parking.

What are you driving?
If you’re driving a vintage car or have an under-insured rental car, consider the very real possibility that you could leave an unsecure lot with damage to the vehicle. You’ll want to leave your vehicle in your hotel garage and find another way to get to your destination.

This story was first published June 3, 2015.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Rebecca

    I think the worst price gouging I’ve ever been subjected to was when my husband had surgery at Rush University Hospital in Chicago. It was $28/day to park in the garage, if I had it validated (it was over $30 if I didn’t). He was in the hospital for nearly a week, and the fact that I spent $200+ on parking really pissed me off. If I went home and came back, I paid twice, which made it add up really quick. And I’m sure there are people that simply can’t afford to pay to park if a loved one is in the hospital. I understand it’s prime real estate, but I was shocked they didn’t have a system in place for people that genuinely couldn’t afford it. This was several years ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the cost has increased even more.

  • sirwired

    If you are visiting DC via car, the best thing to do is to park your car (and stay) at a suburban hotel near a Metro station. DC traffic/parking and it’s crazy maze of roadways is needlessly stress-inducing.

  • Joe Blasi

    And the health insurance stopped paying for parking

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The part that got me is how little it went down even when validated. I’d have anticipated it being cut in half at the very least given the circumstances. You can find retailers where you spend just a few bucks and parking ends up being free after validation but thousands in medical bills just knocks it down a couple bucks?

  • Randy Culpepper
  • Lee Delong

    This was an important and good read. Thank you sir.

  • Lee Delong

    it has. parking is golden.

  • Jim Daniel

    DANG! See what I’m missing by moving to a town with no parking meters and not one single parking lot that charges for parking!
    I go to Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco and park out of town then ride public transit (The Oakland-Alameda Ferry is a favorite) in, then cab it everywhere.
    Sorry folks, but I did that when I was making sales calls in those towns too!

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